Mark Canha, the Newest Brewer

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is a game of uncertainty. Half an inch here or there can be the difference between a strikeout and a home run. Balls bounce strangely. Matchups don’t even out. The wind is blowing just the wrong way one day, or just the right way the next. But two things reoccur like Haley’s comet in the modern game: the Brewers are a few hitters short of a potent lineup and Mark Canha posts an above average but unexciting batting line. Today, those two things are teaming up – the Mets traded Canha to the Brewers in exchange for prospect Justin Jarvis.

It’s not that the Brewers plan on a punchless lineup. They’ve drafted plenty of hitters in recent years, and made trades to secure others besides. In the past few years, they’ve traded for Willy Adames, Jesse Winker, Rowdy Tellez, and William Contreras. They’ve promoted Sal Frelick, Brice Turang, Garrett Mitchell, and Joey Wiemer. Carlos Santana joined the team last week. Through it all, though, they’ve always seemed a few bats short. Someone gets injured. Someone regresses. The end result? An offense scuffling around or below league average, with a few spots providing downright embarrassing production.

This year, the entire infield has failed Milwaukee. Luis Urías hit his way back to the minors; Adames has a .202/.287/.388 line, good for an 82 wRC+. Turang is even worse, hitting .208/.278/.314 (61 wRC+). Brewers first basemen have a decidedly not nice 69 wRC+ in aggregate. Having an extra batter in the lineup hasn’t softened the blow, either: Brewers DHs have hit .205/.301/.308, the second-worst DH production across the majors. Despite a gaping hole at the top of the NL Central where the Cardinals usually feature, the Brewers have fallen out of first place thanks to the upstart Reds. They need more firepower, and the sooner, the better.

Canha might not be what you picture when you hear “more firepower.” His maximum exit velocity this year ranks in the 48th percentile across baseball. That’s nothing new; he’s been bouncing around between the 40th and 60th percentile for the past four years. He’s only eclipsed 20 homers once, in dinger-mad 2019. He’s not even a Mookie Betts type whose raw power plays up; his barrel rate hasn’t beaten the league average since that same 2019 season.

That’s all true, but Canha still gets his because he has a tremendous sense of the strike zone. He rarely chases bad pitches. He makes a ton of contact when he does swing. A career double-digit walk rate makes sense given those skills. He strikes out more than you’d think given that rosy description of his plate discipline, but that’s just because he works a lot of deep counts. The total package is basically what you’d expect: solid on-base numbers, subpar slugging, and overall production somewhere between 10 and 20% better than average.

Canha’s 2023 has been no exception. While the Mets have fallen out of contention, he has authored a customarily solid season. He’s striking out less frequently than in any previous season, which has buoyed his line despite just six homers and a .279 BABIP. Only two Brewers have out-hit Canha this year over 150 plate appearances or more, which is honestly shocking. Five different Mets have, and the Mets are awful!

All of that to say, the Brewers have a lot of holes to fill and Canha fits many of them just fine. He can DH. He can spell both outfield corners (Frelick and Christian Yelich), or center field in a pinch. When Tellez returns, they’re a natural right/left platoon. Perhaps I’m not selling this strongly enough, but that’s a really nice player, the kind of hitter the Brewers have been missing for years. Canha’s not a superstar, or even a star, but it’s hard to look at his results and see anything worse than a good bat.

To sweeten the pot, the Mets stapled a bag of money to Canha’s jersey. More specifically, they’re paying all of his salary except the league minimum, as Mark Feinsand reported. The Brewers generally operate with a tight budget and they’ve already made some trades this year. Next year’s team option – a $2 million buyout or one year for $11.5 million – provides a possible bonus and a definite small cost, but most likely he’s just a rental.

To add Canha, the Brewers sent the Mets an intriguing pitching prospect. Jarvis wasn’t really on the radar before this year, and Eric Longenhagen explained to me why: He’s one of those pitchers who looks quite average when he’s sitting 90-92 and unhittable when he’s 92-94. (Guess how hard he’s throwing now.) His best pitch is a four-seamer with huge vertical movement. He sports an almost perfectly over-the-top delivery; picture a catapult laying siege to a medieval castle, and you’re most of the way there. That means a fairly high release point, and hence a less-shallow vertical approach angle than is ideal for four-seamers, but the movement and a bit of deception make it an excellent pitch nonetheless.

After that fastball, he throws a slider/splitter/curve mix, with the slider probably the best of the bunch. Truthfully, the fastball is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and he throws his slider as much as his splitter and curve combined. His command is inconsistent – he got his walk rate under control for the first time in his career this year in Double-A, but then walked 12 batters in three starts in Triple-A. In a lot of ways, he’s a two-pitch reliever waiting to happen.

I pointed this out to Eric, but in his mind, the Mets will likely continue to use him as a starter while he has minor league options remaining. There are more chances to catch lightning in a bottle that way, more chances that he’ll master his command. In the meantime, he can pop down from Syracuse to Queens for a low-inning spot start or some long relief when the major league pitching staff is exhausted. There’s a lot of value in having swingmen with options remaining. That feels like it could be his role as soon as next year; he’ll need to be on the 40-man roster this winter to avoid the Rule 5 draft.

Jarvis didn’t make our preseason Brewers list, but his performance this year has put him back on the radar. He’s a 40 FV pitcher per Eric — right on the starter/reliever borderline — on the back of that fastball and the hope that he can find enough strikes and enough secondaries to complement it.

Sometimes, a team’s needs are just boring. That’s the case here. I don’t have a ton of earth-shattering new information to convey to you about Canha or how he’ll fit on the Brewers. He’s offense in a can, and they’re wildly short on offense. He’s probably roughly an average player all-in at this point in his career, his future contract isn’t compelling, and he’s pushing 35. No one’s going to write a tick-tock of how this trade went down.

That’s true, but this is a great example of two teams getting what they need out of a small deal. The Brewers wants to give fewer plate appearances to truly dreadful hitters, and they don’t particularly care what position they’re replacing: check. The Mets are on a mission to spend Steve Cohen’s money to buy prospects, any prospects (though they’ve mostly gotten good ones): check.

Even if I can see why both teams are doing this, I think I’d prefer to be the Brewers. The Mets are just getting what they can; they were unlikely to exercise Canha’s option and they don’t have anything left to play for this year. That’s smart business, particularly given how willing Cohen is to pay down salaries to get more prospects. But Milwaukee’s end? Mark Canha is a pretty good player to get back for a Rule 5-eligible pitcher with command questions.

Let’s put it this way: It’s probably easier for the Brewers to draft and develop a pile of Jarvises than it is to find consistent, Canha-level offense. If rentals like him – roughly average, cheap (post-Cohen), reliable, versatile – are on offer at this rate, why in the world would you go sign a Josh Bell or a Brandon Belt in free agency? They got to try out internal options – whoops, yeah, those didn’t work – and still ended up with a solid hitter at a bargain basement price. If pitchers keep fetching huge returns in trade at the deadline, the optimal behavior seems clear: focus on getting some pitching in free agency, then acquire rental bats as appropriate.

The ever-pragmatic Brewers have stumbled upon a pretty good strategy here. The Mets are taking what the market will give them. Jarvis might end up great (certainly possible) and Canha might disappoint (relatively unlikely), but putting your team in a position where you get to make trades like Jarvis-for-Canha instead of Quero-for-Giolito is something to aspire to. If and when David Stearns takes over in Queens in a few years, maybe he can replicate the strategy there.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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9 months ago

I think Ben does a pretty good job of explaining the Brewers’ tire fire of an offense this year. The Brewers have tried to make do with journeymen and role players for a while now and it finally caught up to them.

The Brewers’ offense features only two players with a wRC+ above 100 and more than 150 PAs–Yelich and Contreras. Using the same parameters for other teams with similar records in the NL, the D-Backs have 6 players who match. The Reds have 6. The Cubs have 7. The Giants have 7. The Marlins–the Marlins!!!–have 6. That’s the competition.

Guys low on the defensive spectrum and have a league-average bat like Canha and Santana shouldn’t have a lot of value for a team with playoff aspirations but in this case they do. It’s unbelievable that they’re even in a position to buy, between that and the fact that they’ve received 29 starts from Colin Rea and Julio Teheran.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If the Mets had shown any ability to develop pitching in the last 5 years, I’d be excited since Jarvis seems like he might be a guy with another level to unlock.

9 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

so much this. I love the moves from a Mets organization perspective but they’ve shown ZERO ability to develop ANY pitching whatsoever